Thursday, November 13, 2008

Taking a Line III - 'State of Fear'

Michael Crichton

The author Michael Crichton, perhaps best known for Jurassic Park, recently died of cancer, aged 66. His novel State of Fear (published in paperback in 1995) is a well-researched thriller containing a strong strain of scepticism about the currently-fashionable nostrums of the anthropogenic global-warming school. It’s well worth reading. As I was recently reminded, in the course of the book he has one of his characters say this about Lomberg’s The Sceptical Environmentalist.

Throughout the long controversy, Lomborg has behaved in exemplary fashion. Sadly, his critics have not. Special mention must go to the Scientific American, which was particularly reprehensible. All in all, the treatment accorded Lomborg can be viewed as a confirmation of the postmodern critique of science as just another power struggle. A sad episode for science. (597)

‘The post-modern critique of science as just another power struggle’. I was struck by this. It is of course a tenet of post-modernism that knowledge–claims are disguised claims to power, and there is something in this. Some knowledge-claims may well be. Supporting this post-modern thesis is scepticism, the claim that all knowledge-claims can only be knowledge-claims, for they can never be justified. So all knowledge-claims are a claim to occupy a certain intellectual territory, and the claim is an attempt to dominate the surroundings from there, rather like an insurgent army might capture a city and control the hinterland from it. This is plausible, partly because ‘know’ and its cognates have a strongly positive evaluation. Knowledge, like freedom, is generally regarded as a good thing. Who does not to want to possess the truth, and to be in alliance with, and to rely upon someone who has a unique and secure access to it, or has plausible claims to have? If we give ourselves, our minds, to such a person, we become part of his territory. All this seems plausible as a matter of fact.

Yet to my mind this post-modern claim, while making this plausible point, also says both too much and too little. (Here I do not wish to dwell on the question of whether the claim itself is in danger of self-refuting. For if there is no knowledge, then there is no knowledge that there is no knowledge. But perhaps the post-modernist is content with this conclusion.) It says too little because there are also many who are not post-modern in their epistemology who nevertheless use their knowledge-claims deliberately to exercise power. It says too much because there are instances where knowledge does not lead to controlfreakery.

Richard Dawkins is certainly not a postmodern. He holds to an objectivist account of truth and knowledge. Yet it is obvious that he uses the theory of evolution by natural selection, coupled with his gifts for ridicule, sarcasm and invective, to couple it with attacks upon religion, and the Christian religion in particular, even on those Christians who themselves have a generally evolutionary outlook. Knowledge, or knowledge claims, are used deliberately to attempt to annex territory. While objective in his account of truth and knowledge, Dawkins is not neutral or indifferent in his attitude to those who (he thinks) do or must differ from him. The Scientific American seems to have behaved to Lomborg in a similar way.

Closer to home, over the centuries the leaders of the Christian faith, with its distinctive knowledge-claims, have seen no incongruity in a formal alliance between their religion and state power, and have shamefully used its knowledge-claims to further (if that is the correct word) and to buttress the interests of the cause of Christ by attracting state sponsorship. Though I do not wish to speculate as to what the course of western history would have been like if there had been no Constantinian settlement, there is no doubt in my mind that that settlement was disastrous. The ecumenical creeds were in fact formulated only because of state sponsorship; so was the Westminster Confession. But could they or their equivalents not have come about by some other course? However, there is little point to such speculation, simply because the alliance between Christianity and the later Roman Empire, and (in the west) the growth of the Papacy, and then successive alliances with European city and nation states, have had such a fundamental effect on our history that an alternative, non-Constantinian history is almost unimaginable.

The knowledge claims inherent in the Christian gospel were corrupted by the modelling of the Christian religion as a continuation of the regal system of the Old Testament, a regal system with a Christian priesthood alongside it which was itself modelled on the Levitical priesthood. ('Zadok the priest.....') Being backed by a privileged alliance with the state, by the support of the judicial system, by the force of arms, Christians, particularly establishment-friendly Christians, used their state alliance to annex religious territory; state has helped church, just as church has helped state, often by propounding a moralistic version of the Christian religion in an effort to promote ‘order’.

So there are many who are not post-modern but pre-modern in their epistemology who nevertheless make and have made knowledge claims in an effort to annex territory.

Reading the pages of the New Testament, who would have believed that such things could come to pass? (I don’t deny that having come to pass Christians who dissent from the ‘Christendom’ idea may have incidentally benefited from that arrangement, just as they have been viciously discriminated against through it, like poor John Bunyan languishing in Bedford gaol.)

But of course dissenting from Constantinianism (or from post-modernism) does not inoculate anyone from attempting to gain power through making public knowledge-claims on behalf of the Christian faith. There are many cases of local churches in which leaders have dominated their congregations through the pulpit, by dogma or charisma or both, claiming an infalliblity that wasn't theirs. A similar sort of thing is observable in seminaries and colleges. Such behaviour also runs counter to the New Testament teaching, though maybe not in so blatant a way as in the case of the Constantinian alliance.

What's the answer? The answer, in a word (or two) is ‘service’ or ‘servanthood’. ‘I am among you as one who serves’. 'It shall not be so among you.'‘The servant is not greater than his master'. ‘I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling’. ‘We teach not ourselves but Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’. Diotrephes ‘loved to have the pre-eminence’. ‘Do not lord it over God’s flock….’ And more, and more. Such servanthood is not the fruit of indecision, or of skepticism: ‘I know whom I have believed….’. “We know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle were destroyed we have a kingdom not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’. And more, and more. You get the picture; servants of the servant king.

But this answer has a price-tag attached to it. Those who successfully adopt such dispositions in their Christian work must for ever surrender the idea that they are there to control the lives of men and women, or of boys and girls. They must view the consequences of their work with a kind of indifference, even though this is hard, sometimes very hard, to swallow. It is not simply a matter of recognizing the difference between sowing, and watering, and the giving of the increase, though there is that. A nod in the direction of the fact that the Spirit of God is like a wind which blows where it wants to, will not by itself do the trick. That fact has to be believed, to rule. As a consequence there must be a certain detachment in the work; ‘Whether they hear, or whether they forbear’. Was Jesus a control freak? No, he was not: 'Will you also go away?' 'Leave them alone; they are blind leaders of the blind'. For the tragic paradox is that the moment of success in controlling other people is also the moment of failure. The people who successfully control others usually also come to be in their thrall, to be controlled by them. Controlfreakery sticks like tar. They need the admiring following as much as their following comes to need them.

There’s also an ethical dimension to this.

But discussion of that must wait for another occasion.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Analysis 20 - History and Dogma

Old theological conflicts frequently reappear dressed in a new outfit. So it is with narrative theologies and their theological output. Currently, in the guise of narrative theologies of one sort and another, we are presented with a version of the 19th century conflict between history and dogma in new dress. Not the denial by history of dogma, but its subtle and sometime not-so-subtle attenuation. This attenuation may not be intentional but it is real for all that. It’s a result of the constraints of the discipline of history.

History is concerned with what is the case, with what has in fact happened, and history ought not to stray beyond that. All else is speculation. History attends to this world, with episodes and narratives of what, in the best judgement of the historians, based on the best available evidence, has in fact taken place. Not with what might have been, but with what was in fact. But a record of what was in fact, or what is in fact, is not strong enough for the purposes of constructing Christian dogma.

To illustrate. A narrative-style study of the Gospel narratives may lead us to the reasonable conclusion that Jesus did not sin. From this we may justifiably conclude: ‘Jesus is sinless’ is true. Will that do, for dogmatic purposes? No, it will not. Crucially will not. For there was a time when it was true that ‘Adam is sinless’, but then he sinned, bringing death into the world and all our woe. If as a result of historical investigation we come to the conclusion that Jesus is sinless, this is indeed a striking conclusion, but it is dogmatically as weak as water. As weak as water even if we are able to conclude, on historical grounds that (unlike Adam) Jesus was always sinless.

Look at it this way. To say that Jesus was in fact sinless, that he never in fact sinned, is to make a statement about the actual world, the world of the historian. But it does not answer the question, Could Jesus have sinned? An account of what actually happened cannot by itself answer that question, for it deals only with what is in fact the case, not what could be. It is quite consistent with the de facto sinlessness of Jesus that he could have become sinful. Although he did not in fact sin, yet perhaps if he had been subject to more temptation, or have been less on his guard, or…then he would have sinned.

Christian dogma, in this case the Christian dogma of the person of Christ, requires us to say more than what is the case. We need to be able to say what could and could not be the case. And the classical dogma of Christ states that it is impossible for Christ to have sinned. Hence the need to talk not only of Jesus’s being without sin or even of his sinlessness, but of his necessary sinlessness. In other words we need to be able to talk about natures. Jesus' divine nature was such that he could not sin.

Of course ‘Christ did not in fact sin’ (as a statement about this world) is compatible or consistent with the dogma of Christ’s necessary sinlessness, but it does not entail it. It is substantially weaker than it. It falls far short of it. The historical verdict from examining the narratives may be consistent with Christ’s necessary sinlessness, but it does not deliver it to us.

So here’s one moral. If one’s theological resources are exclusively narrative or historical accounts of what happened, then as a matter of simple logic the theological results will be dogmatically impoverished or substandard. From what is the case it is logically impossible to conclude what must be the case. And Christian dogma embodies statements about what must be the case; statements about natures and essences and necessities. History alone does not give us dogma.

So (someone may be wondering) where does dogma come from? Of course the language of the dogmatician may be dismissed, as it has been from time to time, as hyperbole, mere rhetoric, as when a person might, licking his lips, say ‘I couldn’t have a better ice-cream!’. Or maybe, it is thought of, more kindly, as the hardening of the language of praise and prayer. To say that Jesus is sinless, is not to speak the truth, but to give honour to his failure to sin by exaggerating the fact. Or alternatively, (and notoriously) the story is that dogma has emerged from the simple narratives of Jesus the teacher due to the intrusion of that dreadful Greek thought which overlays the pure biblical narrative with alien philosophical categories. Where have we heard that before?

So…where does dogma come from? Answering that question in the most general way, it comes from interpretation. And where (for the would-be faithful Christian dogmatician) does the interpretation come from? Answer: interpretations come from the non-narrative parts of Scripture, or from parts of the narratives being taken in non-narrative fashion or interpreted in the light of the non-narrative parts.(Of course these non-narrative parts may come to us in the form of assertions, but they are not assertions that are indexical, that apply to one time or some times only. They are time indifferent, or time invariant. (So Paul's reference to God's nature, (e.g. Romans 1.20) or Jesus' references to the living God (e.g. Mk.12.27) were given on som particular occasion, but they are true of all occasions, and true before time was.)

In the case of the dogma of the sinlessness of Jesus, of the impossibility of him committing sin, it comes from data of two sorts.

One might think, the dogma of Jesus sinlessness comes from explicit biblical statements of Jesus sinlessness. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin’ (2 Cor.5.21) ‘Which one of you convicts me of sin?’ (Jn 8.46), ’Yet without sin’ (Heb. 4.15), ‘without blemish’ (Heb 9.14), ‘in him there is no sin’ (1Jn 3.5) ’Great is the mystery of godliness’ (I Tim.3.16). These data certainly take us in the right direction. Yet even these are statements about what is the case, about what (from a logical or metaphysical point of view) happens in fact to be the case.

We need to go further into the data of Scripture, to link Jesus’ failure to sin with his true deity, to connect up with other statements about Jesus which, together with statements about God, imply his necessary sinlessness. Arguments of the form: Jesus is God having taken on human nature: God is sinless: therefore Jesus is sinless. The premises of that argument come from Scripture, but they don’t come from explicit statements about Jesus’ sinlessness, but in a rather more roundabout route. Thus as regards his deity there is the abundant testimony from the Gospel of John - John 1:1-3; 2.24.5; 3.16-8, 5.18.20. From Paul, Rom.1.7; 9.5, I Cor.1.1-3. II Cor 5.10. From the author of Hebrews, Heb. 1.1-3, 4.14, 5.8. And if Jesus is God made flesh, then the character of God’s sinlessness becomes relevant. ‘Majestic in holiness’ (Ex. 15.11), ‘There is none holy like the Lord’ (I Sam 2.2), ‘The holy one’ (isa. 17.7)(Jb.6.10), ‘The Holy one of Israel (Is.41.20), ‘The Holy one of Jacob’ (Isa. 49.23), ‘Of purer eyes than to behold evil’ (Hab.1.13), ‘Holy is his name’ (Lk 1.49), ‘I am holy’ (2.Pet.3.11). And from the fact that Jesus is worshipful (Phil.2.10, Acts 9.14, 1 Cor. 1.2 Rev. 5.13).

These and more such texts are evidence for original and essential divine holiness. Holiness is not acquired by God, nor does he simply happen to be holy. If Christ is divine, then he has such necessary holiness. But such conclusions are not provided by any narrative alone.

Is this proof texting? Of course it is. But it is what might be called ‘open-eyed’ proof texting. The texts are assembled in the light of their theological value, with an eye to what used to be called (rather opaquely, it seems to me), ‘the analogy of the faith’.

It is of course, possible to treat even these normative utterances, the interpretative statements of Evangelists (especially John) and Apostles as merely historical, as a statement of what, at a time, Jesus or Paul or Peter or John believed. The original interpretations are historical, of course. Paul really existed, and really wrote to Rome, to Corinth, to Philippi etc. at roughly around the times we think that he did, and so on. He really said what he is recorded as having said in these letters. All this is history, what is the case, or what was the case in the life of an ex-Jewish Rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, two millennia ago.

But – and this is the important bit – these utterances of Paul are not simply historical, as (say) the utterances of Cicero or Seneca, writing in roughly the same period, are historical. They are (for the Christian, and the Christian church) normative. They are not simply events, or opinions, they are God-given judgments, including God-given judgments about God. As such they are elevated beyond mere narrative, opinions of Paul about what must be the case in respect of Jesus of Nazareth, to what (without qualification) must be the case in respect of Jesus of Nazareth. What’s the difference?

Look at it this way. Think of narratives are enclosed within sets of speech marks. As speech marks mark occasions of speaking, so narratives are made up of sets of such occasions which are shaped into a story. So it is the with the Gospel narratives: this is Matthew’s story, Mark’s story, and so on. Similarly we can treat the letters of Paul or the reported discourses of Jesus as contained within speech marks, as occasional utterances. But so long as we keep the speech marks in place then the normative status of what Jesus or Paul say is, to put it mildly, endangered. For while the speech marks remain, the question of truth and hence the question of authority may be suspended. It is true that Paul said that God justifies the ungodly, but does God justify the ungodly? For the church Paul’s statements (or at least most of them) take on a normative status in which the speech marks drop away. Paul the Apostle said ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners’. That’s history. But that in fact Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (and what it presupposes and entails) goes beyond history and is, or becomes, revealed truth and so material for Christian dogma.

You might object - but the narratives also contain what is impossible and necessary for God: he cannot lie, or deny himself, or mutate. All things are possible with God. And so on. These are very important, part of the scaffolding of dogmatic theology. But - I realise that it's irritating - even these must be tweaked. The sense in which God cannot lie is rather different from the sense in which George Washington could not.

Dogma comes through history, but it is more than history. Otherwise we are of all people most to be pitied.

Natural Law and Common Grace

The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. (Acts 28.2)

Part of our resistance to the idea of natural law (besides the objection that the use of the term ‘natural law’ seems to belong exclusively to the Roman Catholic Church), is the multiple ambiguity of the adjective ‘natural’. Suppose an apple tree; the apples that it bears are natural, they are the product of the processes that are intrinsic to an apple tree’s being an apple tree and not a cherry tree. If someone attaches wax apples to the apple tree, then these are not natural apples, for they are not true apples. But now suppose that the apple tree is diseased and what is produces are scabby, gnarled specimens of applehood, hardly edible. These are natural in the sense that they are the true product of the tree, but they are not natural in another sense. It’s not natural for an apple tree to produce gnarled and inedible fruit. The fruit have been contaminated by disease of some kind, and so they are not natural in the (further) sense in which honey without any additives is ‘natural honey’, that is pure, uncontaminated honey. So there’s ‘natural’ in the sense of being natural as opposed to artificial, or conventional, or ‘introduced’, and natural in the sense of true and pure as against contaminated or added to. Two other senses of ‘natural’ are relevant here: natural in the sense of universal, and natural in the sense of original – It’s natural for the sun to rise, because the sun rises every day, or for apple trees to bear apples; it is natural, in the sense of original, for a viper to bite.

What of natural law? How is ‘natural’ being used here? In the thought of people such as Calvin and Aquinas, law is natural in the sense of being both universal and original; the presence of such law, and its recognition as such by men and women, are part of mankind’s primitive endowment. But it’s not natural in the sense that its operation in human life is normal or pure, rather it is presently diseased and contaminated by the disease and contamination of fallen nature. In the case of the operation of the natural law, the Fall has intervened.

Unless we are prepared to say that the Fall dehumanised the human race, turning us all into brute beasts, it is clear that some such distinction between nature and supernature is logically required by the Fall. For the Fall does not literally de-humanise, depriving mankind of its essential nature, for then human beings would become other than human. While it is true that occasionally Scripture refers to fallen human nature as 'bestial', in such places the reference is to the moral practices of fallen men and women, and not to their humanity that, despite the Fall, retains its essential characteristics. For essential features, such as reason and conscience and will, remain after the Fall, as (I believe) Paul implies in Romans 2, though these are corrupted and depraved by it. The supernatural gifts - principally holiness and true righteousness - were from a logical and metaphysical point of view 'contingent', but nevertheless they were vital from the point of view of mankind's health and prospects.

As a result of the Fall mankind’s supernatural gifts comprising the imago dei are vitiated. To be shorn of supernatural gifts is to have the ordering of the various natural powers and abilities that remain removed. The consequence is 'total depravity', where the adjective is understood in an extensive rather than an intensive sense. Writing of fallen mankind Calvin says

True! he has a mind capable of understanding, though incapable of attaining to heavenly and spiritual wisdom; he has some discernment of what is honourable; he has some sense of the divinity, though he cannot reach the true knowledge of God. But to what does these amount? They certainly do not refute the doctrine of Augustine – a doctrine confirmed by the common suffrages even of the Schoolmen, that after the fall, the free gifts on which salvation depends were withdrawn, and the natural gifts corrupted and defiled.

So - to use a set of modern distinctions – the biblical view of natural law is not that the 'natural' as it was created is equivalent to the 'secular', a set of powers that are at best neutral as between the claims of theism and atheism, or between rival religions and no religion at all, say. The Fall does not mean that the contrast between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ is obliterated, but that (in the sense in which we re using it) the ‘natural’ is equivalent to the God-given. So that natural law has a supernatural origin, but it is not miraculous but it is universal, innate etc. in the senses that have been set out.

However, as a consequence of this, ‘natural’ also testifies to the fact that man's nature is intrinsically religious, intrinsically orientated to the knowledge of God, which was ordered in unfallen mankind, but became perverted (not extinguished) in fallen mankind. What Calvin calls the sensus divinitatis is part of the essence of human nature, as is shown by the fact that it remains, albeit in a perverted form, after the Fall. An apple tree produces apple leaves even though its blossom and fruit-producing powers have been extinguished by the blight. And similarly with the other aspects of mankind’s original powers. The 'ordering' is not therefore a religious icing on a secular cake, it is the ordering of a nature which is, for Calvin, essentially religious.

What is true of Calvin is true, surprisingly perhaps, of Thomas Aquinas.

There is a three-fold good in original, unfallen human nature; first, the constitutive principles of nature, body and soul, and the physical and mental properties that they express; and second, there are the powers of body and soul which (in a state unimpaired by sin) incline humankind to virtue. Finally there is the 'gift of original justice', natural in the sense that it was originally universal, bestowed in Adam on all mankind, but not entailed by nature.

Aquinas claims that of the three, the first is neither destroyed nor diminished by sin, the second is lessened through sin, and the third is totally removed. Let us look further at what chiefly interests us here, the first two.

In saying that sin does not destroy or diminish the constitutive principles or powers of the soul (nec tollitur ned diminuitur) Aquinas claims that human nature remains intact, not one of its essential features or powers is lost. The first man was every bit a man even when fallen and sinful as he was before; he remains a body-soul composite, he retains his humanity with its natural and mental powers, and so on. The Fall did not denature. Further, the pursuit of virtue with which humankind was originally endowed, prior to the Fall, which is also essential to human nature, is not removed but according to Thomas it is 'weakened'. So 'while nature itself is not intrinsically changed through a deviation in voluntary action, still its inclination is changed with regard to direction towards a term'. Sin lessens the good of nature in that it is 'a diminution of this good inasmuch as it involves the disorder of an act' So we may say that human nature, though intact, is disordered by sin. It is essential to man that he acts in accordance with reason, purposively, and that he seeks the good, (even though he may have a wrong view of what the good is), and so these features cannot be taken away without denaturing him. What happens is that the inclination to the good is lessened, in that it is hindered, and is wounded, receiving the wounds of weakness, ignorance, malice and concupiscence. Other goods are substituted for the true good.

So according to Aquinas, as a result of the Fall a human being remains as such, but his nature, that which is constitutive of him as a human being is weakened or impaired in its ‘connatural inclination to virtue’ by the total loss of what Aquinas calls ‘the gift of original justice’.

In his book Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought , Arvin Vos stresses this point against modern Reformed interpreters of Thomas. He also points out that according to Aquinas the moral virtues, which we all may possess by nature, are not possible to be addressed to God without the theological virtue of charity. As Thomas puts it

Only the infused virtues are perfect , and deserve to be called virtues absolutely, since they direct a man well to the absolutely ultimate end. The other virtues, those namely that are acquired, are virtues in a limited sense, not without qualification. They direct a man well in respect to what i final in some particular field, not in the whole of life. Accordingly, on the text, All that is not of faith is sin, the Gloss comments from Augustine, He that fails to acknowledge the truth has no virtue, even if his conduct be good.

So how do the Dutch Calvinists come to emphasise common grace at the expense of natural law? What is the explanation of Bavinck's mistake? It is, I believe, that he was working with a Counter-Reformation view of nature and grace, a view ultimately derived from Cajetan, and reading it back into Calvin's own situation: a classic case of anachronism. Whether or not this is the precise explanation, it is fairly clear that Bavinck's understanding of the Roman Catholic view of the distinction between nature and grace draws that distinction in much sharper lines than it is found historically in Augustine and Aquinas. Indeed, it is another account altogether.

So the idea here is that nature and grace entail two sets of powers or virtues, and these sets are contingently connected in that the set of powers which comprise 'grace' can come apart from the set of powers that comprise 'nature'. In addition there is a basicness to nature in that while the gracious set of powers can come apart from nature, and nature thus exist on its own, the opposite cannot happen. Grace cannot exist apart from nature, though nature can exist without grace..

Bavinck says that the way in which common grace works is in traces of the image of God continuing in those who are fallen and who are not enjoying saving grace. For example, understanding and reason remain, as do the possession of natural gifts in certain individuals. Calvin would not demur. But his explanation is not that reason and understanding are part of the image of God, but that reason and understanding remain, though these are not part of the image, though they are necessary conditions of possessing the image, and are nevertheless damaged as a result of the Fall.

To say that a human ability or activity is the effect of common grace or that it is the working of nature, human nature, are thus two ways of saying the same thing, or almost the same thing. What the phrase ’common grace’ brings out is that these abilities and activities, as found in fallen and unregenerate human nature, are the result of undeserved, divine goodness. The effects of the Fall on human nature could have been worse than they are, and why they are not worse than they are is due to God’s undeserved goodness. ‘Nature’ looks at the same phenomenon from another angle, focusing on the persisting structures of human nature. How are the gifts of common grace expressed? In the workings of human nature, created in the image of God and now fallen and suffering loss and perversion as a consequence. Due to divine goodness, the Fall has resulted in loss and perversion but not in obliteration. So I argue that these expressions ;’common grace’ and ‘nature’ are complementary descriptions of the same phenomenon; they are not at odds with each other, and so they are not to be set in opposition to each other.